CHANTAL AKERMAN IN THE SEVENTIES
A new entry in the Criterion Collection’s no-frills Eclipse series, “Chantal Akerman in the Seventies” offers five films by this Belgian director best known for her 1975 “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” a seminal work of women’s cinema that combined gender politics with an innovative style using long takes to underline the passing of time.
The set includes Ms. Akerman’s first feature-length film, the 1975 “Je Tu Il Elle,” in which she plays an alienated young woman on a road trip punctuated by two erotic encounters; and “Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna,” a more mainstream feature from 1978, centered on a film director (Aurore Clément) and her glancing contacts with humanity during a promotional tour of European cities.
Both are challenging and often beautiful works, but the highlight of the set may be the disc called “The New York Films.” It unites two of the short, experimental works that Ms. Akerman made in Manhattan during a 1971-73 residency, and the 86-minute “News From Home” (1976), a return to New York filmed after “Jeanne Dielman.”
All three were made in collaboration with the cinematographer Babette Mangolte. And all three reflect Ms. Akerman’s fascination with the avant-garde work — by filmmakers like Marcel Hanoun, Yvonne Rainer and Michael Snow — that she discovered at Anthology Film Archives during her New York stay. Taken together they allow us to see a young artist absorbing her influences and confidently moving into territory of her own.
The 11-minute single-shot film “La Chambre” borrows a formal device from Michael Snow’s “Région Central” (1971), in which a coldly precise camera movement is used to survey a space, here a cramped one-room apartment. As the camera pans in a full circle (three rotations from right to left, then suddenly from left to right), it passes Ms. Akerman lying in bed in poses that variously suggest sloth, sensuality and paralysis. A geographical gesture in Mr. Snow’s work here becomes something domestic and dramatic, allowing us to infer a story from these few glimpses of a woman confined in her personal space, as “Jeanne Dielman” would do more extensively and expressively.
In “Hotel Monterey” (1972) Ms. Akerman expands her vision to include an entire building. A residential hotel on the Upper West Side is covered from bottom (the lobby and lounge area) to top (the camera strains to peer out windows on the upper stories, trying to catch a glimpse of the Hudson). Filmed over the course of a single night, the movie proceeds from dark elevators and dimly lit corridors to expansiveness and sunshine, while the human presence gradually drains away. These images have a lyrical loneliness that critics have compared to the works of Edward Hopper, but there is something more spectral here too, a haunting emptiness that looks forward to similarly filmed hallways in Stanley Kubrick’s “Shining” (1980).
The spatial configuration of hallways returns on a grander scale in “News From Home” as eerily unpopulated New York streets. This time there are no domestic interiors, but only public places: an East Village corner covered by a slow pan, a view from the side window of a car driving up a far West Side avenue, extended shots of subway interiors (in which some passengers can be seen defiantly returning the camera’s gaze).
The two previous films were silent, but “News From Home” has a crowded soundtrack consisting of city sounds blended with Ms. Akerman’s own voice, reading increasingly imploring letters from her mother back home in Belgium. As in “Jeanne Dielman” we gradually become able to infer a story — this time, of a young woman’s growing autonomy and escape from the past.
Like William Friedkin’s “French Connection,” “News From Home” has, with time, become a documentary on New York in the 1970s. Lingering shots of pre-gentrified downtown neighborhoods, graffiti-slathered subway cars and the little village of shops and stands that once filled the Times Square station now carry a sense of impermanence and inaccessibility, of a world receding into the past, just as notions of “home” have receded for the unseen protagonist.
The final image — a 10-minute take from the deck of the Staten Island ferry, looking back on a lower Manhattan fading into fog and mist — now carries an extra charge. Defining the left border of the frame is the World Trade Center. (Criterion Collection/Eclipse, $44.95, not rated)
Above content from The New York Times